Theories are tools for understanding and explaining any number of different subjects. As role-playing games began to increase in subject matter breadth, there immediately followed an attempt to explain what different games do, and what games do best. Unsurprisingly, attempts to “explain” the range of games on the market were typically incomplete and sometimes dreadfully inaccurate. Despite this, some theories stuck around, usually because they were punchy and easy to remember, and were “close enough” to work as a shorthand. Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look a bit at game design theory, and use one of the most popular theories as a springboard to discussion about RPG Theory as a whole and what it’s trying to accomplish. As George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That is the best way to understand many RPG Theories, including the GNS Model.
Designers have been trying to quantify or categorize RPGs since D&D came out, and would have been doing so even earlier if there were products to quantify. There have been a range of theories on game design and player behavior over the years, but the GNS theory has found itself widely quoted or parroted due to both its relative simplicity and relative accuracy. Like Myers-Briggs personality profiling, GNS offers quick insights into what games do, which tend to turn on light bulbs in the heads of those who first hear them. Also like Myers-Briggs, GNS is a poor set of categories, has been superseded by better tools, and generally doesn’t tell you anything actionable or accurate. So what insights can we glean from the framework, even if it doesn’t serve as a good system of categorization?
GNS stands for Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist, and implies that there are three design goals of any RPG. Gamism is the goal of providing challenges to overcome and ‘win’, as well as a framework of reward for overcoming those challenges. Narrativism is the goal of providing an engaging story. Simulationism is the goal of providing a rich, fictional world with which to interact. Now, anyone who has played at least a couple RPGs will recognize the immediate problem with this framework: these aren’t mutually exclusive at all. Pretty much every RPG has at least some nod towards all three of these elements. Despite this, when GNS was being championed at game discussion site The Forge, the framework came with the idea that a “coherent” game design would only push towards one of the three goals. Vampire: the Masquerade was a favorite punching bag at the time, as the fact that the game pushed towards both action and advancement (gamism) and deep storytelling (narrativism) made it “incoherent”. There may have been problems with the design of Vampire, but this wasn’t actually one of them.
While GNS fails as a way to categorize games, it does highlight three elements that gamers do want at some level. Gamers want challenge in their games, Gamers want story in their games, and Gamers want immersion in their games. So while games don’t fall out into the three categories of gamism, narrativism, and simulationism, those three categories represent different elements which are prioritized in different ways by different people.
Challenge is an interesting concept to understand in games, because it doesn’t necessarily fall on the expected side of the player/character split. Challenge refers to player challenge here; a challenging game is one that demands more critical thinking, rules mastery, and creativity on the part of the player to overcome. The OSR movement is a decidedly challenge-focused movement: while rolling dice is still used to determine the outcome of uncertain events, a player’s thought processes when solving a problem like a locked door or trapped chest are more important than the character’s skill rolls. Some OSR games dispense with the mechanic of a spot check entirely, relying on descriptions and the players’ attentiveness to determine if and how they move forward. While most games don’t rely this heavily on player puzzle-solving, the consistent use of combat and social conflict mechanics illustrate that the vast majority of games have at least one outlet for player-driven strategy and tactics. Beyond this, many if not most GMs will pose conflicts to their characters in the form of problems to be solved, and take their approach into account when adjudicating.
Story in games seems to be fairly simple: all but the most stripped-down dungeon crawls have some sort of narrative to hold them together. However, when gamers want story, they typically want story elements to interact with. Powered by the Apocalypse games are a great example of this: between the mechanics and the agendas behind the game, the story is created not only through both the players and the GM, but through the gameplay. While there are story-games which are about allowing the participants to jointly create a narrative, most RPGs on the market with narrative mechanics are focused on adding story elements at key moments, maintaining some degree of uncertainty and challenge. No matter how the narrative is impacted through the game, one thing remains true: narrative-focused gamers want ability to steer the narrative, not just follow a static story. Game mechanics don’t determine the presence or absence of story, but rather if the story is driven by the GM or will emerge from the interactions of players and mechanics.
Immersion in games is usually understood through role-play: immersion is getting into character, immersion is feeling like the world the game is taking place in is real. Immersion as a comparative measure is quite difficult, because even among people who all agree that immersion is their top priority for gaming, what is considered immersive can be a wide range of things. “Meta-mechanics” like Fate Points are a commonly cited immersion-breaking mechanic, but not everyone has an issue with them. Player-facing puzzles are cited as immersion-breaking by some, and immersive by others, depending on whether the player/character dichotomy or the puzzle mechanics are more important. At the end of the day, many of the things that make a game ‘immersive’ are elements controlled more by the GM and the play group than the system; in fact, attempts to regulate immersion in rules are often met with derision in the gaming community. More than one fantasy heartbreaker has been panned because it mistook pedantry for immersion and player control for realism.
GNS keeps getting referenced because the three core concepts that it’s built around do resonate with most gamers. That said, treating these concepts as mutually exclusive design goals is both not quite correct as well as a massive oversimplification. So how can GNS be useful? Instead of using gamism, narrativism, and simulationism as narrow game design goals, consider their broader aims of challenge, story, and immersion. Each one describes elements that players are looking for, and that are incorporated into game design. While challenge could come in the form of a detailed combat system, a GM prepping interesting encounters and puzzles provides the same thing without depending on rules. While story could come in the form of setting rules and pre-written hooks, a group preparing backstories which a GM will then react to and write for provides the same thing. And while immersion could come from significant mechanical detail around environmental effects and NPC reactions, it could also come from a group riffing on setting details themselves, or taking the time to play side scenes in-character. These three concepts can help a group both choose a game and run that game in a way that matches their preferred playstyle. What the model can’t do, however, is bucket RPGs into three discrete categories. RPG Theory has marched past GNS in an attempt to find an objective model, and the results are, at the very least, a little weird. But that’s a whole other article.
Check out some of the original articles on GNS and other RPG theories at the article archives of The Forge.